The Left Banke’s deposit: Pop music that is
still generating interest
This introductory entry for Liverpool Genepool is dedicated to the memory of keyboardist-songwriter-producer and founding Left Banke member Michael Brown, 1949–2015.
Scores of American bands were formed in the mid-1960s as a direct result of The Beatles’ galvanic effect on pop music and culture. Relatively few found success (and then only rarely sustained it) and fewer still displayed their Beatle affections with more than a smidgen of originality. Because of the warp speed at which The Beatles would transform the pop-music landscape, most bands could do little more than imitate one or two aspects of the Fab Four’s fast-evolving sound, generally remaining a step or two behind them. Notable among the parade of emulators is The Left Banke, who fused pop sensibilities and strongly Beatlesque vocal harmonies with an original, forward-looking approach informed by the classical training of keyboardist and primary songwriter Michael Brown. For a brief time, the New York City-based band managed to anticipate and walk very nearly in step with the classical-inspired work The Beatles began to experiment with in 1965.
In December of that year, as The Left Banke began recording the first of its own original songs, the pop world was reeling from the unprecedented stylistic progression heard on The Beatles’ just-released Rubber Soul. Prior to that album’s completion, though, the trend-setting Liverpudlians had already begun to expand their sound, employing a string quartet on “Yesterday.” Later that year, the harpsichord effect heard on Rubber Soul‘s “In My Life” (in reality, a piano recorded at half-speed) was yet another early indication of a sound that the music press would come to describe as “baroque pop.” This smartly crafted and generally well-groomed variant of contemporary music was named after the term describing an ornate style of composition that emerged from Western Europe between 1600 and 1750, now referred to as the Baroque period.
Employing multi-tracked violins and an honest-to-goodness (if somewhat understated) harpsichord, the Left Banke’s well-remembered 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee” is frequently cited as a pioneering example of baroque pop. Brimming with a youthful melancholy that could only be birthed from a sensitive teenager’s romantic yearnings, “Walk Away Renee” doesn’t immediately summon an obvious Beatles resemblance. Its wistful lyric is a mostly simplistic and transparent one, the sort The Beatles had begun to abandon in favor of the comparatively complex and adult-themed lyrics appearing on Rubber Soul cuts such as “Girl,” “In My Life” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” (It bears mentioning here that The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” released within days of “Renee,” had a comparable, if richer, emotional quality and an ambitious symphonic arrangement that would also fall into the baroque-pop bin and spur The Beatles themselves to greater achievements in response to it.) But if “Renee” reflected the tender heart of the 16-year-old Brown, who initiated its composition, it also bore a musical maturity uncommon for a band of the Banke’s youth and relative lack of experience.
The teenaged members of the group had a few distinct advantages in addition to youth and its seemingly boundless possibilities. For one, they had abundant after-hours access to a professional recording studio, thanks to the keys nestled in the pocket of Michael Brown, who worked at his dad’s Manhattan-based World United Studios, where he assisted the engineers and tidied up the place while dreaming of musical glory. They had a professional studio violinist and producer/manager (the latter role reportedly a mixed blessing for the band) in Harry Lookofsky, whose son had adopted the pseudonym Michael Brown for reasons that should be fairly obvious. Through connections with Brown’s father, they also had the services of in-demand musician and arranger John Abbott. Abbott, credited with the arrangement for “Walk Away Renee,” likely served a function for Brown quite similar to that of Beatles producer George Martin, who translated Paul McCartney’s ambitious ideas into proper musical notation that could then be interpreted by hired symphonic musicians (who, incidentally, often felt that it was beneath their station to play on a pop session).
Even The Beatles were initially faced with time limitations when it came to the recording studio; as their fame grew, the demand for new material meant having to be as inspired and productive as possible under strict deadlines, which is why it’s not uncommon to hear occasional flaws—the unmistakable signs of working under pressure—in both the performances and mixes heard on the first several Beatles albums. As an unknown fledgling act with a studio and professional talent at its disposal, The Left Banke had the luxury of time in which to develop its material, coalesce as a unit and refine its members’ already-impressive vocal skills.
Testament to the natural ability and fresh musical ideas possessed by the then-still-untested band can be found on their co-written “I’ve Got Something on My Mind,” one of the first tracks they committed to tape in late 1965. Anchored by satiny three-part vocals and Brown’s more prominent harpsichord accompaniment, it stands as likely the first example of British-influenced, artist-composed pop to utilize the reedy-sounding Renaissance-era harpsichord in a fully contemporary, non-novelty context. The early track also serves as evidence that the signature Left Banke sound had immediately begun to gel. The slightly less infectious “Let Go of You Girl,” wielding a repetitive verse section more typical of an early songwriting effort, quickly takes flight with its ascending, harmony-driven refrain. Note the strong resemblance to John Lennon’s throaty vocal delivery on the descending, solo-sung line “you’re gonna cry” (beginning at 0:41) which thrusts the song from triumphant revenge back into a mournful minor key in classic early Beatles fashion.
Impressively, The Left Banke had forged a distinctive and potent style, using The Beatles’ vocal and melodic strengths as a springboard. Their debut album, not released until February of 1967, would perhaps critically delay the availability of the music they’d primarily created during the previous year, one in which pop music underwent a significant transition largely at the hands of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. Among that album’s durable compositions are a pair that reveal additional Beatles characteristics, which we’ll look at in part two.